During my fourth season as a high school girls volleyball coach, our team had compiled an impressive 10-0 record before meeting one of our main rivals in the county. Although we were the visiting team our confidence was not diminished. Despite a fine effort, as is customary with our play, we took it on the chin. The final match results verified the home team as winner. We did not win even one game of the match. The girls were down, frustrated and humiliated by the outcome. The loss was a hard pill to swallow since we had entered the match undefeated.
We left the gym, and the girls ran out to the bus through heavy rain. I had driven to the match and needed to get my car. I moved along under the building overhang to avoid getting wet. I must reveal here that I was not able to walk under my own power. I was aided by leg braces and crutches as a result of having been stricken with polio at age four. My detour seemed a good idea until I hit a slick spot and down I went into a rain-soaked bush on a muddy terrain. A few girls ran over to assist and found my two feet jutting out from beneath the bush. Of course, being thoroughly wet and coated in mud would understandably add to the humiliation of the day’s events.
The next day at practice, before getting on with the business of evaluating the loss and how to adjust for the season ahead, I brought up the incident of my fall. The girls responded with laughter. They knew me too well to think that I would deal with that incident in any other way. And I expected as much from them. We ended the season with a 21-2 record and garnered a state championship.
We have all experienced humiliation. It is quite common. How each of us reacts to such an event is as unique as the individual who falls victim to it. Knowing that no one is immune to humiliation should encourage you not to escalate the effect of humiliation. Our outlook regarding it will determine whether we move forward with a productive fulfilling life or one of unsatisfying stagnation. If we allow them to, humiliating moments will become roadblocks rather than bumps along the way. If we become afraid to make mistakes, because of our concern for others’ opinions of us, then we are responsible for the frustrations and unhappiness we will face. We have no control over how others will respond to potentially humiliating events. However, we do have control over our response. You can sit safely on the sideline of life or get on the court. Whatever court on which your God-given gifts place you, the risk of humiliation is heightened. Yet it is a risk worth taking when the alternative is a life of inhibited purpose.
I was able to make nothing of my fall on that rainy afternoon, largely because of my doctor’s and parents’ influence in my life. After contracting polio and the recovery thereafter, part of which required a nine-month stay in a convalescent hospital, my doctor had told my parents the temptation to spoil me would be great. However, for my sake they let life be hard, as it often is. Even more so for one with a challenging disability. The severity of the trials I faced would be tempered by the love, understanding and support of those around me.
Humiliation has a negative connotation: it reduces someone or something to a lower position. Humility, on the other hand, affirms a positive, for one who possesses it is found to be down-to-earth in nature. And one cannot be reduced to a lower position if one is already there. When we permit the unwanted mistakes of our lives to hold a prominent place, we stifle the opportunities through avoidance. Also, by behaving in such a manner, we lend credibility to those who will seize that moment when we seem most vulnerable and to shame and humiliate us. People who would instigate humiliation or be a party to such have problems of their own. Their actions imply an insecurity that is rooted in some fear. They should not be rebuffed without being pitied and prayed for.
Humiliation then can be overcome by humility. Anyone who easily succumbs to the effects of humiliation or enjoys the humiliation of another possesses an ego in excess. It is difficult to forgive yourself or draw therapeutic humor from a humiliating moment when you are governed by an ego that frowns on mistakes. If you dispense little or no understanding to yourself, others will likely not receive it either.
From my experience with polio, I have learned an important lesson. Although the task may be hard, through humility, defeat need not win. Humility provides a foundation from which a “positive forward thinking” attitude can grow — an attitude that beckons us to keep trying in the face of adversity, no matter its form.